Body camera video is coming, but who gets to watch it?

With police body cameras soon to become the new normal, controversy over the video of a police shooting near Los Angeles, made public earlier this week, has people wondering how the footage should be managed.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle. The camera is attached to a battery pack and controls on the officer's uniform.

The court-ordered release of video footage showing California police officers killing an unarmed man has opened up a new debate point in the use and management of police camera footage.

The dashboard camera videos – which show three Gardena Police Department officers shooting and killing Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino on June 2, 2013 – was held under a court seal until a judge ordered the video be made public earlier this week. 

The video was first provided as evidence in a civil suit filed against the city of Gardena by the family of Mr. Diaz-Zeferino and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, who was wounded that night and survived the shooting. That suit ended with a $4.7 million settlement, and the city argued in defense of the subsequent lawsuit from three media organizations that it made that settlement under the belief that the videos would remain under seal.

The media organizations – the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg – filed a lawsuit to unseal the videos, and on Tuesday U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson sided with them, writing “the fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos.”

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described the decision as “a clear victory for accountability journalism,” but the arduous litigation required to make the video public more than two years after it happened – and five months after the $4.7 million settlement – poses a compelling question over how law enforcement will handle video camera footage moving forward.

In particular, police departments across the country are moving toward the widespread use of police body cameras – at least partly in response to public pressure after a year of high-profile police shootings around the country.

While there is strong public support for these cameras, and some police support as well, the Gardena Police shooting raises a question: With thousands of officers around the country either already wearing or soon to be equipped with cameras, what kind of access will the public have to the mountains of footage?

“Looking at this video, you really want a police agency to be really transparent,” says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer. “But there are privacy issues there.”

All sides in the debate agree that privacy concerns must be balanced with public accountability; unsurprisingly, there are disagreements over what this balance should look like.

“Body cameras don’t provide any transparency if the videos remain secret, as was the case [in Gardena],” says Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“The routine intrusions police are required to make shouldn’t be exacerbated by further release of footage to the nightly news or the Internet,” he adds. “But when there’s public interest in police conduct, when there’s allegations of misconduct or serious use of force, that video should be made public.”

Concerns over access to prospective police video footage have been exacerbated by policy decisions of the departments now pioneering body camera use. The Los Angeles Police Commission, in its decision to equip the LAPD with body cameras, also ruled that the footage would be the sole property of the department and that the recordings will be “for use in criminal investigations, administrative reviews, and other proceedings protected by confidentiality laws.”

The Commission added: “Any unauthorized use or release of [body camera footage] or other violation of confidentiality laws and Department policies are considered serious misconduct and subject to disciplinary action.”

The South Carolina General Assembly, which moved to introduce body cameras after the police shooting of Walter Scott earlier this year, only needed one sentence to put a blanket seal on body camera footage: “Data recorded by a body-worn camera is not a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.”

In an amicus brief filed in the Gardena lawsuit, the LA County Police Chief’s Association argued that while the case “does not involve ‘body cam’ video … the ability of that type of video to be placed under seal will be affected by any type of precedent this Court’s ruling here sets.” 

The Association warned in its brief that a ruling against the city of Gardena could lead to “challenge-after-challenge, year after year, to a Court order to seal records.” The brief concluded that “an across-the-board rule of non-disclosure would save law enforcement agencies substantial resources in having to conduct these reviews [of footage] and make decisions concerning disclosures.”

Dr. Burke says that there are “a million questions that need to be asked” before police agencies implement the use of body cameras, including what will happen with the hours of footage.

“It is a tough call, but if you’re going for transparency, if you’re going for accountability, you release it as soon as possible,” he adds. “[But] you don’t want to interfere with [an] investigation. You don’t want a trial-by-media.”

“These questions need to be addressed before implementation happens,” he says. Otherwise “you’re going to be developing policy as you go, and that can get pretty ugly.”

Academic research on the effectiveness of police body cameras is still in its infancy, but early results have shown that body cameras have a positive effect on both police accountability and citizen behavior. But the question of what to do with the footage – which may capture a controversial incident but usually will only record the mundane day-to-day activities of law enforcement – looms large as the national debate over police body cameras continues. 

The Seattle Police Department has been working on one potential solution. Last year, the department held a hackathon, aimed at developing software that could redact video streams from dashcams and body cameras. Seven groups presented technology that could semi-automatically blur faces and bodies in a video, or transcribe audio into text.

Such technology could help strike a balance between accountability and transparency, but Burke adds that the fate of police camera footage may also depend on the specific state law, or even specific department policy.

“You’ve got to be able to make the decision of who benefits from the release and who does it hinder,” he says. “It’s a very complicated question, and that’s why it gets tied up in litigation.”

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